A School District’s Role in Supporting and Educating Refugees

Of the nearly three million refugees who have been resettled in the US since 1975, twenty-five percent are school-aged children between five and eighteen years of age. Most are identified as students with interrupted formal education (SIFE), and also designated as English language learners (ELLs), two categories that under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are held to particular achievement measures, and are often recognized as the lowest-achieving student subgroups. Targeted for additional educational supports,  these students are becoming of great consequence to schools challenged  by decreasing budgets and increased accountability. However, inadequate research attention has  been given to  schooling experiences, their unique linguistic challenges and resources, and their educational trajectories.  There are approximately 1000 refugee students enrolled in a southern Arizona school district; thirty-eight percent of them have been attending district schools for three years or less.  Seventy-nine of the eighty-nine schools in the district have at least one refugee student.  For ten schools, refugees comprise 3% or more of the total student population, and in two high schools the percentage is greater than 10%.  District Department of Asian Pacific American Student Services and Refugee Services (District Refugee Services) aims to integrate refugee youth into schools and help refugee families’ transition to living in Tucson. Under the directorship of an EDL doctoral student and Family Mentor Specialists and one part time administrator provide a range of educational and social supports. The educational services, such as assistance with school registration, tutoring, and language support are aimed at counteracting refugee youth’s initial limited English language ability and intermittent schooling. Social supports include, but are not limited to, translating school information for parents, transporting family members to medical appointments, securing mental health services for youth, and providing programs in citizenship and adult ESL. These bridge the voids created by disrupted family networks, poor mental and physical health services in resettlement camps, and ethnic-cultural neighborhood segregation common to refugee populations in the US. During the 2014-2015 school year, doctoral students, Lisa Fetman, Linsay DeMartino, and Sowmya Ghosh, and I conducted an ethnographic case study of District Refugee Services. We documented the ways in which a school district can play important roles in providing educational and social supports to refugees and their families, and also act as a mediator, connecting refugee families to other agencies and programs that provide medical, dental, legal, housing, and educational services. One aim of the project is to learn from and build upon what is done in District Refugee Services to develop models for school districts with increasing populations of refugee and immigrant students. For additional information, contact Associate Professor Jill Koyama at jkoyama@email.arizona.edu.